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Style with substance

Ronald Reagan's ability to forge personal connections changed the presidency and modern politics.

June 07, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

His suits were boxy and sometimes the wrong color, his neck hung in a wattle, and his hair -- well, we all know that wax museums won't have any trouble replicating it. He favored jellybeans and was quoted as observing, "You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans." He transcended, in a way that few ever have, the vast anonymity of television. When he tightened his lips and gave an aw-shucks tilt to his head, it was personal. It was one on one. Even if you didn't like him, you knew that he was connecting, millions of times over.

Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday, transformed the American presidency and American politics.

The Age of Communications begat the Great Communicator, and he turned out to be a self-contained, nostalgic, sunny, sentimental, congenial, eminently comfortable California migrant. And like other such Westerners, he exercised settler's rights to claim bits and pieces from the culture as it suited him. He wasn't born to his destiny, he was self-assembled. His style, his persona, came to be part firebrand populist, part privileged rich, part flannel-shirt cowboy, part glamorous Old Hollywood, part Norman Rockwell.

He walked with a leading man's rolling lope, he spoke in a leading man's sonorous tones, he delivered with a leading man's timing. He entered politics knowing how to work a crowd and where to find the cameras.

"Never turn your back on a camera," he would say. In turn, it was Reagan's great good fortune that the camera was always kind to him.

No one in such a high position, before or since, was so easy with the TelePrompTer. Who else in the age of mass media could coax such spontaneity out of a script?

During his presidential years, he wore just one contact lens when he appeared before crowds. His longtime speechwriter, Ken Khachigian, learned why when he tried to shorten the candidate's stump speech. Every line that Khachigian proposed for elimination, Reagan defended. "He would say, 'Have you seen the way people respond when I say that?' " Khachigian recalled.

Reagan knew precisely how his audience received him. With a single contact lens, he employed one eye for reading the speech and another for scanning the crowd. He studied faces for reaction. He personalized the moment by actually meeting the eyes of his listeners, not faking it. He was an actor, yes, and he was in a familiar role. But acting is no small skill.

It is often said that John F. Kennedy was the artist of political television. It may be closer to the truth to say that Kennedy was good, while Reagan was the first to master its transforming power. It was Reagan, and the team he assembled, who taught us that image was created chiefly by images, no less in politics than in Hollywood.

High style in politics

"It was always more who he was than what he was," recalled former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who served as a Democratic state assemblyman under Gov. Reagan. "He was in constant play with his audience, whether one or many. It was a personal challenge with him." Brown, himself a student and practitioner of high style in politics, paid tribute to Reagan this way: "He was an elegant gentleman, always." In his 1987 book "The Great American Video Game," journalist Martin Schram recounted a moment of insight. Reagan was running for reelection in 1984. A network TV correspondent aired a hard-hitting report about the White House ducking "issues" for the sake of a "feel good" campaign. The correspondent prepared for an onslaught of White House criticism. Sure enough, her phone rang in the press room.

"Great piece. We loved it," a Reagan aide said.

The correspondent thought she had misunderstood. "You what?" The president's assistant explained: "We're in the middle of a campaign and you gave us 4 1/2 minutes of great pictures of Ronald Reagan. And that's all the American people see." Today, this lesson is considered an axiom of modern politics. And it's not entirely cynical to say so. Reagan's electoral success and his legacy of breathing new vigor and credibility into conservatism demonstrate that blending style with substance is the essence of contemporary political leadership, for good and for ill. Millions of Americans defend the idea of voting "for the person" -- the person they met on television.

"All politicians since Ronald Reagan have tried -- most unsuccessfully -- to re-create his natural characteristics," said Democratic political consultant Kam Kuwata. So far, he said, all have proved to be "rank amateurs." Whether Reagan was a good president will be left for historians to decide. But surely he was good at being president.

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